“Good” Schools Seminar: Gleanings from a Class

For at least a decade I have taught a seminar for graduate students at Stanford called  “‘Good’ Schools: Policy, Research, and Practice.” The masters and doctoral students who take the course are committed, for the most part, to school improvement and reducing social injustices. They have scored high on the Graduate Record Exam and bring a strong record of prior academic achievement to the seminar.  Many have spent time in both charter and regular schools teaching either through Teach for America or after completing university-based teacher education programs. Even though they have attended and taught in schools under a regime of state curriculum standards, state tests, and the regulatory accountability of No Child Left Behind, they come to the seminar with varied visions of “good” schools imprinted in their minds.

In the seminar’s syllabus, I explain why I put “good” in quote marks.

“Good,” I tell my students, is obviously not a technical term but a common one that is in daily use by educators, researchers, policymakers, parents, and taxpayers. A “good” school  also can be described as “great,” “excellent,” “productive,” “first-rate,” “effective,” or other similar terms. For the past quarter-century the dominant view of a “good” or “great” school has been one where students do well on state tests and send increasing numbers of their graduates to college. That view, while pervasive, is contested by other definitions of “goodness” represented in different designs for “good” schools (e.g., KIPP schools,  New Trier high school in Winnetka (Illinois), and the Open Classroom School  in Salt Lake City (Utah).

The second reason I offer for putting the word in quote marks is to make clear that it is a value judgment based upon individual and group conceptions of “goodness” in schools (e.g., federal and state definitions anchored in values of what makes a “good” school such as  Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP).  Conceptions of “good” whether it be a “good life” or a “good friend” are loaded with values. So, too, is what we believe should the purposes of tax-supported schooling in a democracy, what knowledge and skills should be learned, how learning and teaching should occur, and what should constitute success.

To make this point, in their first assignment I ask them to write an op-ed piece describing their version of a “good” school for a general audience. Their op-eds traverse a range of schools they call “good.”

After analyzing their op-eds in the seminar, I then offer students a wide variety of school models that designers, participants, and experts judge to be “good.” They are: Core Knowledge, School Development Project or Comer schools, Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, KIPP schools, Rocketship Schools, and Child Development Project schools.

Then in one session summarizing these “good” schools, I  ask them to figure out why they are considered “good”–their purposes, strategies to achieve those purposes, measures of success, and responses from students, teachers, and parents. Then, I ask the students to judge which ones they consider “good.”

Most often, students judge each of the model schools they have read about and we have discussed in great detail, “good.” Afterwards, I ask them to write down answers to two additional questions that cause much consternation among them. The questions are: Would you teach at the school you have said was “good?” Would you send your children to the school you have judged “good?”

During the lesson, I tally all of their responses publicly to the above questions on whether the school is “good,” would they work at the school they designate as “good,” and, finally, would they send their children to that “good” school. Conflicts within individual students and across the class become evident.  Again and again, students see that while nearly all  of them designated, for example, KIPP or Rocketship as “good” schools, most of them would neither work nor send their children there. Most students wanted to work at  Comer and Child Development Schools. Most wanted to send their children to Core Knowledge and Child Development Schools.

The data from their choices revealed much individual and group nail-biting: the school is “good” but many would not choose to work at the school or send their children there. Often, discussions erupted at obvious inconsistencies expressed by students. The group slowly came to realize that while a school may be considered “good” by designers, participants, and experts, that does not mean that an individual teacher or parent would choose to work at that “good” school or  send their children there. Not only is the concept of a “good” school value-driven, they discovered, but many versions of  “good” schools exist and there is no one “good” school for all or even most children and youth. Period. End of lesson.

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42 Comments

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42 responses to ““Good” Schools Seminar: Gleanings from a Class

  1. Jeff Bowen

    Do you think you would be able to do that course online? If you did, I would love to take it! For educators of any age, this would be a wonderful stimulus for critical thinking and values clarification.

    • larrycuban

      The seminar with no more than 20 in the group requires constant interaction between professor and students, group dialogue, and, on occasion, conflicting views that raise the emotional temperature during lessons. That kind of course rarely transfers to an online medium. Thanks for the comment, Jeff.

      • This is the first time I’ve read your work. I found a reference to it on Dan Meyer’s blog . I, too, would like to participate in an online version of the seminar you describe. The conversations you describe in your live seminar are possible online. They require a skillful facilitator. I have participated in online experiences that were very meaningful.

        If you were interested in offering the seminar online, it could be done. You might not have the time or the inclination, but it could be done.

      • larrycuban

        I am sure that an online version of a “good” schools seminar could be fashioned by people smarter than me. I am just not interested in doing it, Seth. Thanks for for your comment.

  2. Michael Cowley

    It would seem it is often about our own experiences. If one had a reasonably ‘safe’ school education then as a parent one more often than not is willing to honorifically indoctrinate the next generation. Finding the right fit probably comes down to enrolling with a confidence developed from a bit of personal research as well as accepting there is going to be a degree of risk. In response to periodic ‘conversations’ with ours my wife and I check that emotionally our sons and daughters are developing positively, and that we haven’t totally outsourced our responsibility to nurture them. Academically we look for teachers to be professionally supportive of enabling ours to be learners with some meta-cognition opportunities. And yes when the fit isn’t proving to be a ‘good fit’ being capable of putting in place a personalized framework for successful transition … a whole new learning experience, i.e. strengthen those emotions. Life isn’t always ‘good’ how can a school measure up? It’s in the learning and understanding that learning is about discovering more than we presently know.

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  4. What an excellent exercise! While I’m not in a position to do it as you have done, I believe I shall find my thoughts coming back to this very article several times over the next few weeks, thinking about my own practice and my own situation.

  5. Bridget

    I am not surprised at the outcome. It is typical of the current Ed Deform movement in which corporate philanthropists with profit motives have taken over public education. Their reform dialogue centers around what is “good” for “other people’s children” (children in poverty). Yet they send their own children to schools with smaller class sizes, certified teachers, access to enrichment classes, abundant resources, etc. Take a look at the schools where President Obama, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and countless other education “reformers” send their own children. I promise you they are nothing like the military style KIPP schools. What is “best” for all children should be what we consider “best” for our own children.

  6. tim-10-ber

    Great article. Do you ask the students to describe the school(s) they want for their children and where they want to teach? If yes, will you please share their responses? If I missed it, I apologize. Thank you!

    • larrycuban

      I did ask but did not record their responses. The inconsistencies in responses hit most students between the eyes and each year that this occurred, most time was spent in the group trying to figure out why such conflicts occurred within individuals and across the class.

  7. Larry, this is a very enlightening exercise and I’m glad you’ve had the opportunity to explore this topic with many future educators. I would point out that these same debates happen all the time in the “No Excuses” charter networks, and that, despite commenter Bridget’s claim to the contrary, more and more KIPP (et al.) leaders and teachers are choosing to send their children to the schools in which they work. I would attribute this to the overall improvement in education provided by these schools as much as I would to the reality that, when choosing a school, parents are not always choosing from among various ideals – they’re choosing between this very academically-focused school in which they work, with limited sports and arts options (sometimes with larger class sizes and sometimes with teachers who have not completed their certification), and another school they may not be too thrilled about.

    • larrycuban

      I would like to see data on the percentages of charter schools such as KIPP whose teachers send their children to those schools, Hawke. I have not seen such data. Thanks for the comment.

      • Bridget

        Larry, Here in New Orleans not all KIPP schools are high performing. Everyone should be aware that their success comes from “”cherry picking” or “skimming” students and getting rid of those students who don’t “fit” their school bc of discipline, special needs, or truancy issues. Those families who stay are not typical of most public schools here bc we accept ALL students.

      • Thank you for responding, Larry, and thank you for asking for data. This is one of many important conversations to have in the education world, and grounding ourselves in realities (rather than perceptions) is the only way we’re going to get anywhere.

        Unfortunately, I don’t have the data you’re asking for and I don’t know of anybody else who does (though I would also love to see it), but I did work with KIPP for eight years and saw this change firsthand. Really, ten years ago, so few KIPP teachers or leaders had school-age children that the data would have been based on a handful of people. Now, as the average age of KIPP teachers slowly climbs, there is more data to be gathered, and I can think of a handful of teachers/leaders at KIPP who do send their kids to KIPP schools.

        Here at Achievement First, many of us are very public about our desire to send our kids to our schools – meaning that we have to make our schools the kind of schools that would lead us to make this decision – and, when the lottery does not permit us to do so, we find the next best option. As you know, we make decisions as parents first, so if there are options that we perceive as better than our own schools, we’ll simply send our kids to the better options, then evaluate how we can change our own schools so they better match our vision of excellence.

      • larrycuban

        I appreciate the candor, Hawke. If such data exist about KIPP teachers (or, for that matter) Rocketship schools, Comer schools, Core Knowledge, schools in the Recovery District (New Orleans) about the percentages of teachers and administrators who send their children to the schools within which they work, it would be helpful to see.

      • Bridget, my intent is not to get into an argument on the internet. On the contrary, I do want to share a couple of thoughts:

        1. Many (non-charter) public schools feel that they are under attack, and some people in the charter world are certainly to blame for this. Educating children is really hard, and I have seen how a lot of what is said on behalf of charters (almost never from the schools themselves) too often comes across as, “what’s wrong with you? If KIPP can do it, why can’t you?” This has got to feel awful, and unfair, and you have every right to be upset. I have personally had the feeling of working insane hours, doing the best I could, and still being told it wasn’t good enough and boy, what a terrible, demotivating feeling.

        2. Talk with just about anyone who actually works at a KIPP school, and they’ll tell you the same thing: This is really hard. You seem upset by some of KIPP’s publicity (again, possibly rightly so) and are quick to want to share your truth, which is that you don’t see a direct comparison due to certain advantages that KIPP schools in New Orleans seem to have. That’s fair, and you have every right to share your opinion, but…

        3. The minute you begin assuming the worst intentions of other human beings who work at schools (in your original comment, for example, when you implied KIPP teachers and leaders were entirely focused on educating “Other People’s Children” without regard to what they would want for their own children), and the minute you begin calling people names (‘Ed Deformers’), you make it difficult to engage in real dialogue. Yes, most KIPP principals have read Delpit’s book. Yes, they get together at least once a year and grapple with these issues. And no, their schools are not always perfect or ideal or even the best available options for their own kids. But there is a difference between not being there yet and not caring enough to try, and if I can appeal to you in any way, it’s to trust me when I say the following:

        I hope people in the charter movement stop demonizing non-charter schools, and the people who work in these schools, AND

        I hope people in non-charter schools stop demonizing charter schools and the people who work in these schools.

        I hope for a more honest dialogue, so that we can all start to learn more from each other, so that ultimately all children – ours and everybody else’s – can get the education they deserve.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Hawke, for your comment.

  8. Kevin Anderson

    So, are there no consistent principles for creating a “good” school? Does a quality education vary so extremely based upon needs of particular students and communities, that it’s not possible to say that certain characteristics will always be good? Based on my experiences as a student, teacher, teacher educator, parent and community member, I think there are certain qualities that I want ALL schools to have. It makes life interesting that others might not agree with every aspect of my list, or at least the priority put on each item. The most important effort would then be to have communities come together to deliberate upon this list for their school and work to coming as close as possible to consensus on what those priorities should be.

  9. Briel

    Thank you again for a very thoughtful post. My husband and I (both principals, one public, one private) often have our best work-related discussions because of your writing. I had a similar feeling to Bridget above. I worry that the privileged are moving further and further away from those in high need. The gap sometimes feels impossibly large. Critical thinking, play and creativity are core elements of the private school where I work. The time we spend analyzing, defending and critiquing our thoughts at school is immense. Rote learning takes up minimal time. Yes, everyone needs to read, write and be mathematically adroit. However, what the wealthy know is that if you don’t have an idea about what to do with that knowledge, the knowledge isn’t so worthwhile. Further, if you are really privileged, you can have a brilliant idea and find others with help with the great writing, communication and business plan.

    I remember sitting in class and arguing with you (and my classmates). Thank you for continuing to make me think and engaging in the conversation.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Briel. for commenting. Always good to hear from you.

    • Bridget

      As a public school administrator I totally agree with you. The testing and accountability mandates that have been imposed on public schools, along with reduction in resources in my state make it difficult to create the kinds of school environments you describe. I am trying to find a balance between the mandates and encouraging my teachers to provide opportunities for critical thinking and creativity. We are heading in the right direction, but the new corporate agendas are making it difficult. Bashing public school teachers seems to be the flavor of the day. The mandates from our government, both state and federal, perpetuate the opportunity gap. Many of know what “good” schools look like, they look like the schools that children of the wealthy attend.

      • larrycuban

        Finding that balance, Bridget, is, of course, the task facing both administrators and teachers even with the fiscal retrenchment that is present. And it is a tough task.

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  12. Ellis, Jason

    Larry: I always enjoy reading your blog posts. I’ve recently changed email addresses, from jellis@wlu.ca to j.ellis@ubc.ca Would you please update your records accordingly so I continue to receive notification about your posts. THanks. Jason ELlis ________________________________

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Jason. There is no edit function to use when I found your email address. I believe you have to drop the old one and then add a new one as an email follower.

  13. Cal

    Larry, what a great post. I wish I could audit that class!

  14. Gary Ravani

    This trend noted in a graduate education class is highly consistent with what goes on with the elites of the self-styled reform movement. Obama sends his kids to Friends with small classes, creative lessons, and minimal testing. (He, as did the Clintons, have security issues to consider.) Rhee was just revealed to have at least one of her kids in an elite private school with small classes et al. Rahm Emmanuel has his kids, as did Obama when he was in Chicago, at the University School with small classes, a well rounded curriculum, and minimal testing. Bill Gates, all in favor of high class size for everyone else’s kids, has his kids in the same private school he attended. Need i mention it advertises small classes, creative curriculum, and minimal testing.

    It appears in the case of the elites, most of whom have little or no real class room experience, that their own educations were rather light on the dangers of hubris and had very little at all about the definition of hypocrisy.

    • larrycuban

      Hi Gary,
      A few people have also commented on the gap between policy elites’ choices of schools for their children and the kind of schools that their policies favor. Thanks for commenting.

  15. I would never have not considered sending my children to a public school. Fortunately, the majority of people in Ontario agree with me and have not weakened the system by sending their children elsewhere. Numbers are power. Interestingly, most of my colleagues sent their kids to their local schools but there were a few who did opt for the private system in the belief that this would be more academically stimulating than what they were delivering in their own classroom.

  16. Highly constructivist. Not sure many grad students are accustomed to such tasks :). Would love to do the same thing with my faculty.

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